The story is set in Japan during the final year of the Second World War (if you are currently thinking about the Hiroshima bombing, you’ve gone too far ahead). Son of a Naval Officer, Seita and his younger sister Setsuko have narrowly escaped an air raid but unfortunately, their mother however, wasn’t so lucky. Now with their next closest relatives being too dependent on their own survival, Seita and Setsuko have to do all they can to live through the harsh living of the near end of the war.
Despite not being as successful as Nausicaa, Laputa commercial success convinced Studio Ghibli to make another film. Hayao Miyazaki’s next idea involved a large and friendly creature in a story set during the late post-war period. This idea that eventually became My Neighbour Totoro was initially rejected by Tokuma, who believed a film set in the post-war period was a subject too sensitive for what was pitched to be a child friendly film (even over 35 years after Japan became independent again). Partially due to desperation to get it green-lighted, Toshio Suzuki then decided to pitch My Neighbour Totoro with Grave of the Fireflies, an adaptation of a popular semi-biographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka (originally published in 1967), as a double feature.
This pitch was cemented in Studio Ghibli’s history as the craziest idea ever done by the company. Tokuma Shoten were at first pessimistic with the idea, since asking for one film is normal, but not two, especially for an animation studio. However, Nosaka backed the film adaptation of his novel, which eventually got Tokuma to give the green light for both films, although the publishing rights were owned by the novel’s publisher Shinchosha. Isao Takahata was given the role as director and writer, executive producer of Nausicaa, Toru Hara, was given the role to produce and the music was composed Michio Mamiya.
One thing Isao Takahata is well credited for is his elements of realism in his films. The art style gives Grave of the Fireflies a very realistic look at Kobe during the war period, and for this kind of film, it actually helps. The character animations are brilliant and give a good representation to a live action film.
One behind-the-scenes fact that I know of is that it was decided not to use the common voice over conditions that are common at Studio Ghibli (recording the voices with the viewer watching the clip of the film), because it was considered impractical for the five year-old seiyū Ayano Shiraishi to watch some of the more frightening scenes while doing a voice over. This meant that her mouth is rarely shown during her dialogue, even with this problem the animations are able to compensate very well to avoid it being a noticeable problem.
The music is great but overall…forgettable. There are wonderful tracks like the main theme and the ending theme which should definitely be given a listen to, but the rest of the soundtrack you aren’t going to remember, whether you thought they were good or bad pieces of music. The previous film, Laputa, had a great memorable soundtrack, both the original and the re-score, and other Ghibli films have equally memorable scores but sadly this film’s soundtrack doesn’t have that high mark.
The voice acting is as always, great in Japanese, the English dub is OK, but has a few problems. This is the only film that is not owned by Walt Disney for western distribution, since the license agreement gave them the distribution rights for all Studio Ghibli films produced by Tokuma Shoten. This meant the rights Central Park Media, a company that distributed East Asian media until its bankruptcy in 2009. While the dub was able to get decent voice actors like Crispin Freeman, Dan Green, Veronica Taylor, who do great jobs for the additional voices and minor roles, the major roles aren’t that impressive, with the exception being Rhoda Chrosite, playing a young, innocent and emotional Setsuko. The other two major roles include a pretty dull Amy Jones as the Aunt and a bland J. Robert Spencer as Seita.
Like I said earlier, Isao Takahata is well credited for his realism, this also means that he makes adaptations nearly perfect to the original story, and this story was partially based on Nosako’s real life events. So when I’m giving my opinion on the story of the film, I’m also talking about the story in the original novel. So what is my opinion?
I believe this film should be an international case study on the Second World War, I wish when I did History in my GCSE’s, I did this as a case study. This film definitely shows the experience of living on the losing side of the World War, from the harsh living conditions to the reaction of civilians hearing that their country has surrendered. I also agree with the hundreds of people who have already watched this film; it is very sad, very emotional and very moving. This film will pull at your heartstrings, especially if you jump straight into the film without knowing any spoilers or endings.
However, the film isn’t without any flaws or problems. The first of my problems is with the beginning and the end, I’ll try not to spoil the end but in the first five to ten minutes of the film, it shows that on September 1st 1945, Seita dies at a train station, and then goes back in time to the start of the plot. What makes this problem such confusion to me is that no one, not even Roger Ebert, has brought this up. By starting an emotional film with the death of the lead character, then starting the plot to a period of time earlier, leaves the risk of giving away the whole film, this method of storytelling I’ve only seen work in Citizen Kane, because the plot of that centred around the investigation of his last words. Because of this beginning, the very end of the film struggles, since it doesn’t really have much of an epilogue.
The other problem focuses on the character of the Aunt, who’s named Hisako, but not in the anime. This woman is so heartless and cruel it just frustrates me, and there isn’t a great reason why. I think it’s because Seita and Setsuko are kind of lazy and don’t contribute to the war effort, but it’s not entirely a fair excuse since they have good reason for not being able to and she doesn’t care about them anyway, not showing any sympathy for them when she finds out about the death of their mother and SISTER. This problem I tried to look for a proper answer and even watched the entire live-action adaptation for an explanation, but didn’t get one. Despite that, it’s the only problem I can forgive, since she is an example of one of the film’s elements, of how cruelty mankind can be on or off a battlefield, and how one can change because of a loss in the family or a great disaster. So while the story isn’t perfect to me, it still is a Great War film and one of the few films to proudly cry at.
Grave of the Fireflies is available from Optimum Releasing and Section23 Films, the company formally known as ADV. The original novel by Akiyuki Nosaka was translated into English by James R. Abrams and published by Asahi Shimbun in Japan Quarterly back in 1978, but as far as I know, has not had an official release in English, but it has in German by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH. A live-action film was produced by NTV for the 60th anniversary of the end of the War, but I’m not going to review it here.